three things: mirrors, growing, and zen

FEED: When my little family and I lived in New Britain, CT almost 30 years ago, in what was clearly the ghetto part of that otherwise-rich place, I got a chance to get away for a bit. We had three tiny kids at the time, all under the age of 5, and we were planning to move to Virginia. My then-husband had already been there scouting places to rent, and he suggested that I go, that he would stay with our kids.

even after driving over that bridge hundreds of times, the view of Manhattan never fails to take my breath away

This was such a glorious thing—just me, after such terrible hardship, a solo road trip (and I adore road trips). And not only that, I would drive through New York City for the first time in my life. I left around 4am, I think, and as I came down through the scary (to me then, and in the dark) Bronx and went over the beautiful George Washington Bridge, with all of Manhattan spreading out to my left, this song came on the radio.

It was popular at the time and I really loved it, and I think it probably came on the radio a dozen times on the 6.5-hour drive, or at least it felt that way. So even now, when I hear the song I just get filled with the same soaring sense of freedom, and the lyrics poke at me too. If you wanna make the world a better place, you’ve got to look at yourself and make a change. Lots to think about there. But at the moment I am just being fed by the beat and urgency of the song, and by the memories it holds for me.

SEED: Over the last couple of very easy years of my life, I’ve often written about feeling the complacency of it, and about wanting to use that easy time to challenge myself, to get out of my comfort zone, maybe to learn something new.

Well. Then the presidential campaign came along and all that ease went away, and now the fact that he’s in office and trying to destroy everything — no more complacency here, or anywhere else. As it all started unfolding, I often felt so many levels of terrible, including some inner levels, some frustration and personal hopelessness: I don’t know what to do! I don’t know how to do anything about any of this! I’m not an organizer! I don’t know anything about lobbying, I don’t know how to do any of this! I don’t know how the details of the government work! How can I / what do I / where do I / I can’t!

At one of the marches a speaker said something about this, that it doesn’t matter if we don’t know what to do, learn how to do it. It’s all learnable. Dig in, investigate, read, ask, poke around, assume roles, make things happen! I had to keep reminding myself of that because it’s not my instinct at all. Hell, after I had already made a sophisticated quilt by hand I thought I didn’t know how to quilt so I took a beginner’s quilting class. THAT IS SO ME.

It has been very frustrating, having all those feelings going on at the same time the frustration and fears about what was happening in the government were so overwhelming. It was just too much, too many sources of fear and upset, and yet there was nothing to do but keep flailing in the muck.

Yesterday I realized that I’ve learned a lot. I have really gotten somewhere with how to do these things. It’s less confusing, it’s less impossible-feeling. I have yet to organize a march, and still wouldn’t even know how to begin, but I do now know that I could figure it out. My understanding of things has become more sophisticated. I’ve paid attention somehow, in the midst of all the overwhelm.

And so this terribleness was also an opportunity, as terribleness usually is. And I guess the other thing about terribleness opportunities is that no matter how many times you go through that process, the terribleness feels so terrible that you can’t remember the opportunity part. That’s true for me, anyway. I’m by no means anywhere with it except to say that I’ve noticed the opportunity of it now. There is a very real ALIVENESS to being confused, to doing something new, to having to figure out a new language and new modes and slowly seeing that you have changed as a result.

READ: My friend George gave me a daily Zen calendar for Christmas — the only Christmas gift I received, actually — and as I pulled off all the days’ pages that passed while I was in NYC, two caught my attention:

“Nothing is more real than nothing.” ~Samuel Beckett

“Just try to feel your own weight, in your own seat, in your own feet. Okay? So if you can feel that weight in your body, if you can come back into the most personal identification, a very personal identification, which is: I am. This is me now. Here I am, right now. This is me now. Then you don’t feel like you have to leave, and be over there, or look over there. You don’t feel like you have to rush off and be somewhere.” ~Bill Murray

That Beckett is so Beckett, right? It’s the kind of thing you can say to yourself and then pause to see what it means and then just get kind of lost. Is nothing real? Is there a realness to nothing? AAARGH! And I don’t know if the second quote is by that Bill Murray, but doesn’t it just give you a sense of calm?

I’m off to babysit wee Lucy this morning, so my day is off to a great start, and I hope you have something wonderful in your day too. xoxox

three things: the American West, dancing in the living room, and Mexican literature

FEED: Since the new government seems intent on destroying the physical world, I need to remember this:

View of Valley from Mountain, “Canyon de Chelly” National Monument, Arizona (Ansel Adams)

I have camped in that canyon and gotten horribly, blistery sunburned riding mountain bikes over a Fourth of July holiday weekend, but the place was gorgeous. There was a new moon, so the vast, black night skies were filled with the Milky Way and I will never forget lying there watching it wheel through the enormous sky. The world can be so so beautiful, and it’s definitely worth fighting for.

SEED: Yesterday was a cold, brilliant day. Even though he has a terrible cold, Marc thought it was important enough to add another body to the crowd that he joined me at the LGBT Rally at the Stonewall Monument in the West Village. After the rally, I made a big pot of Moroccan chickpea soup, and while I was tending to it, this song came up on my playlist (“Only Love,” by k.d. lang — give it a play while you’re here, it’s such a beautiful song):

Although I’m not a very good dancer at all, I love to dance and do it at home when I’m alone. My first husband used to dance with me in the living room and I’ve missed that because Marc will not dance. Not ever, not anywhere. But there’s something so sweet about just dancing with your husband in the midst of your home. I understand Marc; like me, he is a very socially anxious person and in fact he’s much more socially anxious than I am. This is a place we can connect with each other. But the day had been so lovely, and the soup smelled so good, and so I grabbed him and dragged him up, put one earbud in his ear and one in mine and put my arms around him and told him we were going to dance. “All you have to do is just hang on to me and sway to the music a little.” He felt anxious, I could feel it in him, but I closed my eyes and held on tight and felt the music and cried.

Maybe, slowly, with patience, I can help him grow a little. That’s what it’s really about, spending a life with someone.

READ: In this time of nationalism and closing of borders (and not just in this now-insane country, of course) it’s time to read translations. I love reading translations, and some of my favorite books are translated, but how is it that I’ve never read a Mexican writer? Lithub posted a list of 15 books by Mexican writers and nope, haven’t read a one. Have you read any of them? Or another one that’s not on the list? I’d love to get a recommendation if you have one.

Foreign films, watch those too. My friend Jeff is on a Pedro Almodovar spree (I need to get on that spree too and rewatch them all….). So, while we’re at it, do you have a favorite Mexican director? Actor?

I’ll say one thing about this time of fear and insanity. I feel very much alive. I feel very connected to other people. I hate the cause, but love this specific effect. Happy Sunday, y’all. <3

my own pink cardigan

My mother was the black hole of maternal care. We kids made our own dinner (“fix-your-own,” which meant cereal every single night…which, to be honest, we didn’t mind); we made our own school lunches even when we were too little to do that, using whatever we could find (bits of old food wrapped in aluminum foil and gathered in an empty plastic bread bag); and we were on our own if we were sick (and woe be on to us if we were sick enough to warrant a visit to the doctor, because we’d better be really sick or we had just wasted her time and money and there would be a price to pay).

One of my painful childhood memories happened when I was in second grade, at lunch. I was sitting in the cafeteria eating my miserable little lunch, and an outcast already because I had the wrong kind of lunch, when I noticed a girl from my class sitting at a nearby table. Her lunch, as always, was in the proper brown bag, and her sandwich was wrapped in plastic, not foil. She had an apple and a cookie — all A+ according to the code of normal. But that day she also had a thermos filled with hot soup, and she was wearing a new pink cardigan.

I turned to my friend, the other outcast, and said, “Hey, Pamela, why does Jennifer have that thermos today?”

“She’s been sick,” scabby Pamela said, “so her mom made her some soup and got her a new sweater.”

I was instantly sick with envy. What makes her so special, I thought with such bitterness it hurt me. What makes HER so special. I just wanted to die, I really did, and even writing this post has filled my eyes with tears.

It was really all wrapped up in that pink cardigan. It felt to me like the loudest emblem of love and care — a new, soft bit of pinkness wrapped around the girl, keeping her warm and loved, reminding her of her mother’s care. And who had hot soup?! No one. No one but Jennifer, that day, food to help her feel better and get well. The cardigan made me imagine that while Jennifer was sick at home, her mother had tucked a blanket around her, stroked her head, fed her.

I used to recall this memory once in a while and the envy still felt present, but mercifully the bitterness faded a long time ago. This morning I recalled it again, unbidden, when I realized that I had metaphorically wrapped my own pink cardigan around myself. That same tender care, that same love, that same desire to comfort and tend, I figured it out. I’ve got this covered.

contradictions

Time to snip the tiniest little bit from Leaves of Grass (go here to read it in full if you don’t own a copy, but I recommend you have your own copy — with you, always):

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Even though I love this poem, and this bit of it specifically, and even though I believe it as one of the truest things I know, I still struggle to remember it, because my multitudes frequently contradict each other and pull at me and my sense of identity: I’m this. I’m that. No wait, I’m this.

blue moonThe evening of the blue moon, I had an extraordinary experience and I’m not sure how to talk about it. I’m not even sure of the meaning yet, so I’m not ready to talk about that aspect either. But essentially it was a deeply spiritual experience, and it required me to be open to the world in a specific way that has sadly become uncomfortable to me since I entered my PhD program back in 2000. It was led by a friend of mine who has strong Native American Alaska Athabascan heritage, and it drew, I believe, on many of the rituals and songs of her culture. Her incredible use of her drum and rattles, and burning sage, and whooshing wind from a feather fan, and her amazingly strong voice singing and calling — all while our eyes were covered as we sat outside in the dark — was disorienting and deeply personal and moving.

As I drove home later, thinking about everything that had happened within me, I was trying to reconcile being a logical, rational person trained in the scientific method, and a spiritual person open to the larger world that goes far beyond that. I found myself thinking, “Oh, I’ll be that flowing spiritual person.” [silly] The funny thing is that I have no problem appreciating the flowing-together of science and spirituality. Richard Feynman said,

I have a friend who’s an artist…He’ll hold up a flower and say…”I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty…I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more…I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty… The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color…the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds.

I believe that! With all my heart! It’s my own very regular experience, even. I’m not sure why my default automatic response is to insist on either-or categories, when a moment’s reflection reminds me that there are so few absolutes I believe in that I can’t even think of one at the moment.

It’s funny how my mind moves out to the superficial when I encounter a conflict like this — kind of ‘presentation of self’ stuff. I’m pretty smart and thoughtful and love talking about big things, love extremely intelligent people, and feel most comfortable there. So when I came face to face with my openness to a more spiritual world, my superficial thoughts were about how to dress. Loose, flowy, specific jewelry and hair vs more tailored. Isn’t that silly? I think it’s just a top-level entry to bringing myself to thinking about how these different ways of approaching the world can live together in a deeper way. My kind of clothes with specific jewelry and hair. Rational and intelligent and scientifically minded and open and understanding Big Things that you come to through ritual and guides.

One clear thing that happened in that experience kind of cracked my heart, and I can talk about it. So very clearly I saw that I’m a tightly closed person, tense, scared. It surprised me (and it surprised me how true it is) because this is an area in which I have grown  so much. When I started therapy in New York back in 2005, my primary goal was to stop being a terrified person in the world. So when you are at, say, 0% of something, 50% looks amazingso dazzling you can hardly believe it. But it’s only 50%, it’s not time to stop. I have a lot of opening to do. I have a lot of guards to let down.

Perhaps my friends and loved ones would argue with me, no, you’re not closed, you’re open. But maybe they wouldn’t (except for Dixie of course, who loves me with soul-filled eyes and heart). Maybe they’re aware of my tightly guarded borders. Luckily I have people in my life who model the very parts of myself I’m struggling to become and remain open to. We’re all our own unique combination of bits, and contradictions, and so none of my models have the same amalgam of things I do, but that’s more than fine.

Thanks, beautiful blue moon, and thank you, my friend, and there’s nothing to wait for anymore. Time to do it.

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who are you?

So many things become clear and obvious the older you get. The problem is that it would be much better if they were clear when you’re younger. Stupid time.

I wish we all understood from the time we’re tiny that all we can be is who we are. That that’s who we’re here to be, what we’re here to do. That trying to be like others is a waste of time — but more, a loss. I wish I had understood that, but that’s OK. I think I understand it now.

Before I Leave the Stage, Alice Walker

Before I leave the stage
I will sing the only song
I was meant truly to sing.

It is the song
of I AM.
Yes: I am Me
&
You.
WE ARE.

I love Us with every drop
of our blood
every atom of our cells
our waving particles
—undaunted flags of our Being—
neither here nor there.

Last month at book club I was telling the story of my great-aunt Bea. Her father sold her, when she was 14, to an older, horrible man for the price of a horse.  A few years later, Bea shot her husband when he was crawling through the kitchen window threatening—once again—to kill her. She told him that if he came in through the window she’d shoot him. He came in through the window. She shot him, on March 5, 1946. Bea was tried and found not guilty; in the small north Texas town where they lived, everyone knew her husband and knew Bea’s story. She certainly was not guilty.

bea story

Bea was an original, in every way. She was a barrel rider in the rodeo (not so unusual in North Texas). She dressed and walked like a man (extremely unusual in North Texas in the 1950s and 60s). She said exactly what she thought and didn’t care what you thought about it (for a woman in the south/Texas, very usual). She raised her son alone, then lived with her sister for a few decades before getting married again . . . her choice, this time.  Who is it we remember when we think of that family? The quiet, meek women who did exactly and only what was expected of them? Who shaped themselves to the roles they were assigned by family, by their time, by their culture? Nah. In my family we remember Bea. We talk about Bea. And it’s not about committing murder — it’s not about being a “bad girl.” It’s just about being very true to who you are inside, and just being that, as Bea did.

actingWhen I was a girl, I was very inward and quiet. Very serious. I learned to talk very fast and smile smile smile and accommodate myself to stay safe, and that became a habit. But it always felt like acting (acting!). It served me well in so many ways, but it did not feel like me. Now I find myself returned back to myself, and coming back inward. Coming back to quiet, and serious. The thing is, if you’ve been untrue to yourself and then find your way back to being who you truly are, some people might not like it. And maybe it’s just because it’s different, you’re not who they knew you to be. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

Be who you are. Be who you are. Know who that is, and be it. The world needs you to be that, it’s really what you came here to do, to be. If you just live long enough, you might figure out that you already knew the important things.

spin

OK, so this is NOT one of those idiotic ‘glass half full’ things. I had quite the little rant about that dumb idea during my nightmare period of late 2012-2013. But it is about the complexity of experience and the multitude of frames available.

In the last several months, it has not been uncommon for my Austin friends to comment on how much I have changed since they met me. There is, of course, the dramatic evolution through and past the extreme grief I was in when they met me. I was numb, crying, haunted, devastated, a kind of ghost. Grieving, suffering. So, as people do, I worked my way through all that and slowly cried less often. Slowly laughed more easily and with less guilt about it. Starting with only Katie and Trey as my anchors, I built a rich life, with poet friends and book friends and soul friends. I found my circle of women. That was the ordinary transformation of a person starting over and coming out of grief. But I also learned how to live alone, which has been the most important piece of my transformation, I think.

In a way, this part of my life has been like the very best adolescence. Ordinary adolescents are figuring out who they are, they’re trying on this and that, they’re experimenting and trying and failing and trying. Lucky me, I get to do all that but without the raging hormones, without the adolescent frailty and uncertainty, and with my own resources, my own home, my own income, control over my own life with no need for anyone’s approval or permission. That’s the important part, and the part I have never been able to do in a relationship. That’s all on me — no one has ever demanded that I cower and give in. I do that, I give myself away before I even realize what’s happening. I need to focus next on not doing that when I am with Marc.

red-hibiscusBut the transformation my friends see is deep in me, and real, and I feel like a life-size flower. I really do. It’s funny that the image I always have, when I think about that, is a hibiscus. (My outer right calf is tattooed with hibiscus and sunflowers [here’s the post I wrote about why I chose it, and a picture of it is in the post].) When I wake up in the mornings, as I move through my days, when I climb into my wonderful bed each night, I feel like a huge flower in full bloom. It’s extraordinary.

When I bend over to pick up something, I feel the strong muscles in my back. I feel the bending over with my flat, straight back, I smile that my hamstrings are loose enough to keep my legs straight when I touch the floor. When I head to the yoga mat, I think about this opportunity to become stronger (instead of grim-faced ‘exercise to lose weight’), more balanced (literally), more flexible. When I hold plank, I recognize my abdominal muscles are becoming stronger (instead of dreading having to do it because it’s good for me). When I hold down dog, I press my hands into the floor, lift my butt, push my thighs back, lower my heels, and marvel at my body and what it can do (instead of wondering how much longer this is going to go on and hoping no one is looking at my fat rear end and thinking about what I wish I could have for dinner but I won’t because crap I am once again trying to lose weight).

That frame makes such a difference in helping me head to the mat every day, I’m telling you. It’s not a chore, it’s not something I ‘have’ to do, it’s not something to cross off my to-do list, it’s not [sigh] exercise dammit. Ah, it’s a chance to become stronger, such pleasure. Lucky me, another day to work at becoming stronger.

When I make my dinner, it’s a chance to pick and prepare food that helps my body be strong and healthy AND a chance to be as creative as I can be, a chance to make something that tastes so good I want to slap myself. It’s not diet food, it’s not about how little I can eat of boring food so I can lose weight (or keep off the weight) and then get right back to my ordinary eating. It’s about the pleasure of taking good care so I can be strong and healthy.

WHAT???? Me? Who is this woman?

And the funny thing is that these frames don’t come afterwards, as a way to reconcile myself with something I don’t really want to do. I have no doubt I’d tried that reframing dozens of times in my life and I guess I just wasn’t there yet. I guess I didn’t believe myself when I’d think those things. Maybe the issue is that now it’s not RE-framing, it’s simply what is for me. So I am not suggesting anything for you, you have to find your own way — it’s all an inside job, every bit of it — but I share what is for me, in case you feel a shiver of recognition inside yourself.

Those [re]frames surely contribute to keeping me grounded, but they aren’t by themselves responsible for the transformation. But I think being grounded, and having solitude and the opportunity to take up ALL the space, has let me be more daring with myself, and helped me be less timid in general, less timid about who I am, and less afraid of the world, somehow.

Gosh living alone is thoroughly glorious. It is. Of course I’m not alone at all, I’m surrounded by love and affection and companionship and all the social stuff I could possibly want — and I see Marc 12 days/month, and we travel together. (I secretly think I have the most perfect life anyone could ever have.) But here I am, alone in this beautiful, comfortable place, and I can blast a song that fills me with joy and dance like a lunatic all around my house until I can’t breathe. I can wake up at 2am and decide I want some eggs, and turn on all the lights and bop into the kitchen and scramble some luscious orange-yolked Parker eggs (thank you every day, sweet Karyn), then take a bubble bath with candles, and then sit in bed and write as long as I want with all the lights on if I’m enjoying the deep middle of the night. I can decide I want to completely change the way I eat and just do that, exactly as I wish. I can decide I want to do yoga twice a day and just leave my yoga mat out in the living room because there is no one who will be bothered by that.

And the toilet seat is always down.

a convergence

I love this picture of her
I love this picture of her

A few days ago I heard parts of Gabourey Sidibe’s speech at the Ms Foundation for Women’s gala. There are so many good parts of it, including her daily power salute to pictures of her aunt and Gloria Steinem as she left for school and returned home, but it’s her beautiful words about transforming obstacles into strength that really stopped me:

“If I hadn’t been told I was garbage, I wouldn’t have learned how to show people I’m talented. And if everyone had always laughed at my jokes, I wouldn’t have figured out how to be so funny. If they hadn’t told me I was ugly, I never would have searched for my beauty. And if they hadn’t tried to break me down, I wouldn’t know that I’m unbreakable.”

She says this too when someone asks her how she is so confident — and turns it around and wonders why no one asks Rihanna how she is so confident.

In four sentences she said what I’ve stumbled to say since 2000, when I got my spine tattooed. Because of the challenges I had when I was growing up, I had to think hard about things most people don’t. What does it mean to be beautiful? What is wisdom, strength, courage, endurance, metamorphosis, truth, pain? My life led me to think for many years about those things, and that’s what the tattoos honor. So her words have been on my mind the past few days, in and out of focus as I’ve had time to think.

And then last night was my wonderful poetry group. Ah, I love that group so much, it is a regular source of happiness and pleasure. I’d apparently lent one of the members a book and she returned it last night — Mary Oliver’s 2007 volume titled Thirst. When the group left, I picked up the book and thumbed through it, noting the few pages I’d dog-eared, and was laid low by this one, an old favorite:

The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

So much wisdom in those two sentences — easy wisdom and the more complicated and difficult kind. There’s that glib, trite sentence people toss out without really understanding it: What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger! Um, yeah, it does . . . sometimes. Sometimes it doesn’t, for some people. Some people are knocked down and simply can’t find their way back to life, to themselves, to where they started, much less to stronger. I’ve known people who were just looking for their excuse and it found them, but I’ve known more people who were knocked down, who received their box full of darkness, and wanted to become stronger but the fall was too hard, the box too dark.

So yeah, sometimes what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The general idea is sound, and challenges do give us a chance to grow and learn. When everything’s just great and the engine’s firing on all pistons and boy you’re on top of the world, I don’t think you grow. You enjoy it, I hope! You relish it, you find gratitude for it, but I don’t think you grow.

For many years I tried to say — and mean it — that I am really grateful for everything that happened to me in my life, even the unthinkable stuff, the unbearable stuff, the cruel and unfair stuff. I wanted to say it and mean it. On occasion I’d say it with a quiver, trying to mean it, but I wasn’t there yet.

I think I have finally gotten there. Someone once gave me a box of darkness, and I finally understand that it was a gift. It was. If I hadn’t been told I was garbage, I wouldn’t have learned how to find my worth. If they hadn’t told me I was ugly, I never would have searched for my beauty. And if they hadn’t tried to break me down, I wouldn’t know that I’m unbreakable. I wouldn’t have understood as deeply as I do that the whole point is to keep getting up. To get up one more time than you’re knocked down. I wouldn’t have had so much experience getting up again, so I wouldn’t have learned to trust that I can do it. If the darkness hadn’t seemed bottomless, I wouldn’t have learned my own depths.